Jump to Navigation

Abortion Legalised in Britain

Print this article   Email this article

Abortion was legalised in Britain on 14th July, 1967. There is a widespread belief that to be a feminist means to advocate abortion. Angela Kennedy and Mary Krane Derr argue, however, that many feminist pioneers opposed a 'woman's right to choose'.

There is a widespread belief that to be feminist means to advocate abortion. This attitude not only belies the complexity of opinion on the issue for the feminist movement: it also means that the views of the many early feminists who condemned abortion in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have effectively become hidden from history.

Among American feminists in the nineteenth century opposition to abortion was widespread. Prominent feminists of the period who opposed it included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony and Alice Paul. Stanton once remarked, on the estimate that 400 abortion 'murders' annually occurred in Androscoggin County, Maine, alone:

There must be a remedy for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?

Anthony and Stanton ran a newspaper called The Revolution. They refused to carry advertisements for aborti-facients and they ran articles in which well-known US feminists such as the abolitionist Paulina Wright Davis, the journalist Eleanor Kirk, Matilda Joslyn Gage and others denounced abortion. One editorial not only denounced the 'practice common among married women' but also what the author saw as 'the root of the evil':

...even in wedlock there may be the very vilest prostitution: and if Christian women are prostitutes to Christian husbands, what can be expected but the natural sequence -- infanticide?

Alice Paul, who wrote the original Equal Rights Amendment and helped win US women the vote in 1920, learned the tactics of civil disobedience with the suffragettes in Britain. According to her friend Evelyn K. Samras Judge, Paul was greatly troubled by the ERA movement's insistence on abortion 'rights'. She thought abortion 'the ultimate in the exploitation of women' and asked, 'How can one protect and help women by killing them as babies?'

Elizabeth Blackwell was a feminist and the first woman medical doctor in the United States. Born in Bristol, she and her sister Emily were pioneers in the practice of medicine by women. Together they founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, the first medical institution with an entirely female medical staff.

Blackwell lived in London after 1869. She was one of the founders of the National Health Society of London and of the London School of Medicine for Women, where she was professor of gynaecology from 1875 to 1907. She became a doctor because of her passionate opposition to abortion. After learning of the flourishing business of the New York abortionist Madame Restell, Blackwell wrote in her diary:

The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. That the honorable term 'female physician' should be exclusively applied to those women who carry on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror. It was an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women... I finally determined to do what I could to 'redeem the hells'; and especially the one form of hell forced upon my notice...

Throughout her career, Blackwell fought the Restell business. American feminists had close contacts with their British counterparts. An elderly Stanton represented the US suffragists on the council of the Women's Franchise League, which had also included the Pankhursts, the Elmys, and Josephine Butler. Paul was arrested in London with Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909, had been active in the Women's Social and Political Union in both Glasgow and London, and had kept in contact with Sylvia Pankhurst on her return to the US. Anthony visited Manchester on her way to the founding convention of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Both Pankhurst sisters, Sylvia and Christabel, had visited the US. If the issue of abortion was so important to the North American feminists, it is likely that the issue would have been discussed with their British colleagues.

One early example of British feminist anti-abortion sentiment comes from Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792, in which she refers to the phenomenon of women, in their position of powerlessness, squaring their behaviour to fit the sexual tastes of libertine men:

Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be... have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.

Wollstonecraft once wrote a story called The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria: a Fragment, which told of a servant girl whose seduction is followed, on the insistence of her master, by an abortion. Clearly the issue was important in her mind.

Sylvia Pankhurst also denounced abortion, describing how a colleague had become dangerously ill:

...yet had failed to attain her object. 'What shall I do now?' she wailed, looking to me to find some exit from her dilemma.'Now we shall have to get you made better to have the baby' I answered. Nemesis-like, perhaps, to her ears; yet the lad has done well; she is proud and glad of him now...It is grievous indeed that the social collectivity should feel itself obliged to assist in so ugly an expedient as abortion in order to mitigate its crudest evils. The true mission of society is to provide the conditions, legal, moral, economic and obstetric, which will assure happy and successful motherhood.

Pankhurst wrote this in 1930, just as abortion law reform and various birth control and eugenics movements were gathering momentum. She gave an interview to the News of the World in 1928, describing her 'eugenic' baby, although this description seems to relate to little more than a desire to bear a healthy, intelligent child.

British feminist support for abortion, before the 1920s at least, was conspicuous by its absence. The struggle for 'abortion law reform' lacked support from feminists, and women such as Stella Browne were in a minority when calling for the legalisation of abortion. Lady Rhonnda's Six Points Group, formed to 'establish women's equality -- legal, moral, social, occupational and political' actually supported a clause in the 1924 Children and Young Person's Bill penalising abortionists. When tried for distributing Charles Knowton's birth-control treatise Fruits of Philosophy in 1877, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant drew a sharp distinction between abortion and other methods of birth control. Later, in Besant's pamphlet The Law of Population, she was careful to differentiate 'birth control' from abortion.

Frances Swiney, a member of the Malthusian League which campaigned for birth control, saw in female infanticide a symptom of women's sexual subjection to men. Whether she was specifically against abortion is not clear. However, the word 'infanticide' did sometimes refer to abortion in the writings of the early feminists.

Elsewhere in Europe, Bertha Pappenheim, the 'Anna O' in Sigmund Freud's famous case history, was the leading Jewish feminist in Germany before the Nazis came to power. She worried that Jewish feminists would advocate abortion, and that 'the ability for assimilation of the Jewish spirt showed to its detriment' in such advocacy.

Physicians' newly discovered knowledge about foetal development may have influenced feminist perceptions, increasing their desire to protect foetal life. Another reason for their oppositon to the practice may have been concern over the risks to women's lives or health in abortion. Was abortion dangerous to women? Some historians have suggested that abortion was becoming (relatively) safer at precisely the time that it was made illegal, in 1803, implying anxiety about women's sexual behaviour rather than their health, but this interpretation is problematic. Women still used abortifacients ranging from patent preparations to herbs such as pennyroyal: high mortality from these was reflected in the newly collected statistics of the time. There was also the problem of sepsis: surgical abortion was no safer than childbirth in this respect. Even in the 1930s Sylvia Pankhurst cited a doctor in her Save the Mothers:

The artificial termination of pregnancy, whether therapeutic or criminal, is naturally more prone to fatal or morbid issues than is spontaneous abortion... even under the best conditions, and with every aseptic procedure, its difficulties and dangers are considerable.

As late as the 1960s, the danger of illegal abortion was given as a major motivation for the legalisation of abortion in Britain in 1967.

Ascertaining whether or not abortion was dangerous, safe, or relatively safe, is difficult, as often expert opinion appears to be subject to whether or not one approves of abortion. But, if we acknowledge that induced abortion, now a medical procedure, can still reasonably be presumed to carry risks, another question needs to be considered: why did women risk their lives and health to prevent their babies from being born? This question relates to a third reason behind the condemnation of abortion by early feminists: a rather sophisticated recognition, entirely consistent with their burgeoning feminism, of the conditions of male domination that induced women to seek abortion, and a wish to eradicate such injustices.

Angela Kennedy is editor of Swimming Against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion (Open Air Press). Mary Krane Derr is co-author of Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and Today (Sulzburger and Graham, 1995).



About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.